Kwame Anthony Appiah on Pictures of the World (Ep. 72)

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Mercatus Center
Jul 31 · 43 min read

Born to a Ghanaian father and British mother, Kwame Anthony Appiah grew up splitting time between both countries — and lecturing in many more — before eventually settling in America, where he now teaches philosophy at New York University. This, along with a family scattered across half-a-dozen countries, establishes him as a true cosmopolitan, a label Appiah readily accepts. Yet he insists it is nonetheless possible to be a cosmopolitan patriot, rooted in a place, while having obligations and interests that transcend one’s national identity.

He joins Tyler to discuss this worldly perspective and more, including whether Africa will secularize, Ghanian fallibilism, teaching Jodie Foster, whether museums should repatriate collections, Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, which country has the best jollof rice, the value of writing an ethical advice column, E.T. Mensah, Paul Simon, the experience of reading 173 novels to judge the Man Booker prize, and what he’s learned farming sheep in New Jersey.

We’re coming to New York City! Join us for a live podcast recording with Alain Bertaud on September 9th. To learn more and register for the event, click here.

TYLER COWEN: I’m very honored to be here today with Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Let’s just jump right in. I have some questions about Ghana. Why are there so few atheists in Ghana?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: [laughs] Well, maybe for the same reason that there were very few atheists in much of the world until relatively recently. Atheism is a relatively modern phenomenon, at least the form of atheism that we see around us.

There are lots of Christians in Ghana. There are lots of Muslims in Ghana. And there are lots of believers in traditional religions, which are sort of polytheistic, though they tend to have a high god. There’s one big god, and there’s an earth goddess, and then a bunch of other gods.

Probably one reason why people haven’t given it up is because nobody argues against it. Again, that’s a relatively modern thing, to have people in public arguing against theism. Obviously, there were atheists in the ancient world, but since the rise of the Abrahamic religions, there haven’t been a lot of atheists — except until recently — anywhere.

COWEN: Do you think West Africa is proving to be an exception to the secularization thesis? Which is coming to many parts of the world, many parts of the Middle East. They’re nominally religious. There’s not a lot of belief. But West Africa seems different. Nigeria also.

APPIAH: Yes. Huge amounts of very successful, growing religious denominations, especially — as in many places in the world — the Wahhabi version of Islam and the kind of Pentecostal version of Christianity: born-again Christians, charismatic churches, lots of singing and dancing, people being taken with the Spirit, and that kind of thing.

It’s certainly not going in the direction of secularization as far as I can see, in the sense of moving away from church life or mosque life and moving away from belief. That’s not happening.

COWEN: Marriage across different religions seems especially common in West Africa. Why is that? And have those background cultural factors in some way shaped your own views?

APPIAH: That’s a good question. I think yes. My uncle Aviv, who was a Sunni Muslim, was married to my aunt Grace, who’s a Methodist. My parents were different Christian denominations. That’s not terribly exciting, but they didn’t even go to the same church, actually. They went to different churches. Relatively common in Ghana, both for Christian couples to go to different churches, and for people to marry people who are not Christians, and Muslims to marry people who are not Christians, and so on.

I think it shows something about the character of the belief, which is that it’s, in an odd way — though this has somewhat been changed by the arrival of American Christian televangelism and Wahhabism — but fundamentally, the key thing is belief in, and kind of relationship with, the spiritual world. As long as you agree about that, the rest is details.

Also, people have the view, which I think is a reasonable view if you’re a theist, which is, “Who knows exactly what the truth is about these things? They’re very complicated.” The idea that you get in early Christianity that it’s incredibly important to insist on a long, long list of beliefs, some of which are philosophical and impossible to understand — transubstantiation, consubstantiation, weird stuff like that — that’s not very common. People are very relaxed.

COWEN: And the insistence that things are very complicated — that sounds like you, right? In other contexts.

APPIAH: Yes. [laughs] I think that’s certainly my view. And this idea that a kind of fallibilism, the thought that, “Well, I might be right, I might be wrong” — that’s actually quite a Ghanaian attitude.

People, in a way, understand how hard it is to get to know things, especially about this sort of thing, about invisible spirits and faraway gods. So they are not likely to be super confident about anything outside their own experience. They may be confident that they themselves have had conversations with Jesus or something like that, but the idea that the rest of it is going to be easy to figure out, I think, is not a very widespread idea.

And to some extent, it pervades people’s life, so in other areas of belief, people are kind of willing to think, “Well, I’ll go to the doctor if I get sick, but if he doesn’t do anything, I’ll go to the traditional healer.”

COWEN: Like a portfolio approach.

APPIAH: It’s a portfolio approach.

COWEN: To many things.

APPIAH: Yes, yes.

COWEN: Yeah. And do you have that?

APPIAH: Officially, I do because my official position, I suppose, is that, because all of our best pictures of the world are slightly wrong, we can’t rule out a picture on the grounds that it’s wrong, inconsistent with some other picture that we have, because it may be that the part of the other picture that it’s inconsistent with is one of the wrong bits.

So, we’d better work with as many pictures as we can, or as we can manage — that’s the main limitation, just our capacity to hold on to too many pictures — because none of our pictures is going to be perfectly right.

COWEN: Of all of your pictures of the world, which one do you think is least wrong?

APPIAH: I think my everyday, commonsense, middle-sized-object view of the world is the one that’s least likely to be wrong. It’s least likely to be wrong that there are tables and chairs, the very sort of thing that, in a way, modern philosophy begins by making us wonder whether we know about. Descartes makes us wonder, do we know about these middle-sized everyday dry goods, as one philosopher once called them? That, I think, it’s very unlikely that I’m wrong about, and fortunately —

COWEN: Which is most likely to be wrong? Even if you think it’s true, right? There’s something most likely to be wrong?

APPIAH: Probably some of my views about what the best science is.

COWEN: What would those views be?

APPIAH: I believe in the standard deliverances of modern genomics, but I suspect that we’re going to learn lots and lots of stuff in there that we now believe is not quite right.

COWEN: But not just incomplete, but wrong. What core views or models of yours are most likely to be wrong?

APPIAH: My inclination is to believe about the basic physical structure of the world that some mixture of the quantum theory and the theory of relativity can be made to work. But we’ve been trying to do that for a very long time — basically since they were invented, those two theories — and we haven’t had a huge amount of success.

What people seem to think, currently, is the most plausible way of reconciling them strikes me as (a) incredibly difficult to understand — string theory, and (b) something that a reasonable person might doubt. But if you ask me what I think the best current physical theory is, I’m going to say string theory, but with a sort of confidence that’s probably below half. [laughs]

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.

On the other hand, we’ve had massive expulsions from each country — not recently, but in the past. Nearly a million Nigerians expelled by Dr. Busia in the early ’70s, and then a Nigerian expulsion later. And these weren’t hugely unpopular, so you can get people to be quite nationalistic within Africa, even though there’s a broad sense that we’re all part of one thing.

That doesn’t really include the Maghreb and North Africa and the Arab-speaking parts of Africa in quite the same way, and that’s because of the legacy of racial pictures.

COWEN: Maybe you could explain Ghanaian history to me in a nutshell. If I read about Ghana today, it’s commonly cited, there’s a relatively high degree of national unity or identity. Politics is fairly coherent.

But if I go back and look at history, not that long ago, there are coups in 1966, 1972, 1981. Instability, ethnic tensions in 1994. Why does Ghana now appear to be such a stable nation-state, and not too long ago, such an unstable nation-state?

APPIAH: Well, I think the first question is the really puzzling one. The earlier instability’s not too surprising. After all, Ghana was created in 1957, and I don’t just mean that it was decolonized in 1957. The country of Ghana is the union of the former British Togoland with the Gold Coast in 1957 as a result of a plebiscite in Togo in the mid-’50s. So it’s younger than I am, the country.

That it has a strong sense of national anything — that’s the big surprise, I think, not the other way around. There are various theories about this. I think one of the most interesting is that, because most of what’s now in Ghana, at least west of the Volta — lake, once river — was at one point or other within the ambit of the Ashanti Empire, which is something that goes back to the 18th century, and which radiated trade out from Kumasi in central southern Ghana for hundreds of years.

It’s sort of integrated economically. It’s been integrated economically for quite a long time, and people know each other. They may speak different languages. There are 80 languages spoken in Ghana, but people have been speaking Twi, the Ashanti language, which has dialects on the coast, as well, and in between — people have had it as a second language since long before the British took over, which you have to remember happened in the 20th century. The final British-Ashanti war, Anglo-Ashanti War, was in the first decade of the 20th century.

My father’s father was born before British rule in Ashanti and died after British rule in Ashanti. It lasted less than his lifetime so that whatever shapes that region, I don’t think it can be those 90-odd years of that, because it seems deeper than that.

I think the political stability can be credited to significant achievement on the part of a man, namely President Rawlings, Jerry John Rawlings, who is not someone I hugely admire in every way, but he came in in one of those coups.

He was a military ruler for a while. He civilianized the country, and he actually — probably with the assistance of Kofi Annan, who was then UN peacekeeping head and used Ghanaian troops a lot — he re-professionalized the Ghanaian military to think of itself as a military in service of a civilian power, not as people who might come in from time to time to correct political mistakes.

Ironically, at the end of his two terms, when he lost, he appealed to the army, and they said, “No, you taught us that we don’t do that, so you lost. The other guy should come in.”

We’ve now had a whole set of cycles of the two main parties oscillating back and forth, winning and losing. I think now, whereas there was celebration in the streets in coups in the past, now people would be really angry if the military intervened, and I don’t know that they could get away with it. There would be bloodshed and horrible stuff, and they know that.

I think that is the result of political learning, watching what happens when you do things with coups, and discovering that it doesn’t get much better if you do it that way, and deciding to go with the patience that’s required for democracy.

COWEN: In the data, British-background colonies seem to do better than French, Spanish, or Portuguese. Do you have a sense of why that might be?

APPIAH: It’s not something I’ve thought about.

COWEN: Say, in the Caribbean, Barbados has been relatively prosperous.

APPIAH: Jamaica.

COWEN: People have looked at this — Singapore and many other examples.

APPIAH: Extrapolating out from the place I know best, which is Ghana, one thing that happened in the British colonies was that a middle class was created that was not wholly dependent upon the state, whereas the kind of middle class in the francophone countries of West Africa was, mostly, you got middle-class status by being a civil servant or a lawyer or something, by having some kind of relationship with the state.

That goes with the fact that in the British colonies, education, tertiary education starts earlier. So already there was a university college in the Gold Coast before independence, whereas there wasn’t in Senegal, which is the most sophisticated of the West African French states.

So, I think that’s part of it. There were people who made money in things like farming and forestry, maybe as mediators in the gold trade —

So, the sort of schema story, the cartoon story, is the British do indirect rule, the French do direct rule. The British therefore leave in place the institutions of chieftaincy if they exist or create them if they don’t. The French sort of wipe all that away and create their own structures.

Maybe the continuity of political institutions through the colonial period — so that the king of Ashanti is still in place in the middle of the Republic of Ghana — maybe that’s another thing that helps to explain the existence of a stability that’s independent of the formal state because he’s recognized by the state. He’s a member of the House of Chiefs, but his authority and his legitimacy have nothing to do with the Republic of Ghana. It’s older and deeper than that.

So, that may be another thing. That doesn’t really apply to Singapore, of course. That is to say, the British didn’t use indirect rule in Singapore, so I don’t know what the story is there. I suspect the story in Singapore is three words: Lee Kuan Yew.

COWEN: And a very good location at the right time.

APPIAH: Well, good location, wonderful economic location in terms of being a major port city in a massively growing area of the world, with population speaking the two great trading languages of the world, Chinese and English, and so on. Singapore’s been lucky in many ways, but I think it was lucky in its leadership. I’m not a big fan of the authoritarian side of Lee Kuan Yew, but they owe him a lot.

On cosmopolitanism

COWEN: If cosmopolitanism is so wonderful, why are we today seeing a resurgence of nationalism? What’s unsatisfying about cosmopolitanism?

APPIAH: I want to say first that, for me, it’s really important to insist that you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. You can be rooted in a place, care about it in a special way, and still be a citizen of the world, and think that you have obligations and concerns and interests that transcend your national identity.

I want to say first that, for me, it’s really important to insist that you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. You can be rooted in a place, care about it in a special way, and still be a citizen of the world, and think that you have obligations and concerns and interests that transcend your national identity.

I’m not the kind of cosmopolitan who’s opposed to national identity, and that’s an important part of the answer because the kind of cosmopolitan who does want to drag people away from their roots has, I think, got no chance of persuading most people. They’re not going to persuade me, and I’m officially a cosmopolitan, so why would I expect them to persuade people who have less reason to be cosmopolitan than I do?

And I say I have reason to be cosmopolitan because my parents are from two different continents. The three youngest members of my family are my half-Russian, my half-Namibian, and my half-Nigerian great nephews and nieces. And their grandparents include a Norwegian, a Ghanaian, and an Englishwoman, as well as Russians and Namibians.

So of course, in my family life, I’m going to be interested in everywhere in the world and feel that I have connections with it. But I think if you make cosmopolitanism about rejecting the local, that won’t work. Most of us like to be connected with a place or a couple of places and to feel rooted in them.

The idea that cosmopolitans are rootless is just a mistake — or have to be. Why has so much of the world turned away from things connected with other places — migration and globalization as an economic phenomenon — which they see as posing threats to their economic stability? Partly, I think, because they’ve been encouraged to think so, even though I think it’s just objectively false that globalization has been terrifically bad for many of the people who are most nationalist at the moment.

And part of it is that the elites that led globalization, or that led integration in Europe, paid almost no attention to the views . . . They weren’t listening. They thought it was obvious what they were doing was good, so they paid absolutely no attention to the tensions and difficulties that were produced.

COWEN: But does listening work? Doesn’t a kind of appeasement often make things worse?

APPIAH: Well, I don’t think the right thing to do is appeasement. The right thing to do was to solve the problems that were being blamed on globalization or Europe by the people who were upset. Which means more should have been done in terms of government policy in the north of England to improve employment — things like that. I think that would have been —

COWEN: But even if that’s a good idea, what if it’s just the case that, say, the rise of China lowers the global status of the West? It means stagnant middle-class wages in many places, and those things are just facts. We could have done a number of choices differently, but at the end of the day, people will be upset about that and turn back to nationalism.

APPIAH: I agree that the relative positions of the North Atlantic societies is obviously in decline.

COWEN: England in particular, yeah.

APPIAH: Relatively. But these are still very, very rich societies. So part of the question is whether what goods there are are being fairly shared among the people in these societies, and if they don’t think they are — which I think is a reasonable judgment — then they will worry more about stagnation of income than they do if they think that it’s —

Look, incomes were no doubt stagnant during the Second World War in England, but people felt, “Hey, we’re engaged in this common enterprise together, so of course that’s okay. And also, we’re sharing the burdens fairly, where nobody’s getting away with anything.” And in fact, there was deep resentment of people who profiteered in wartime.

So, I think that it’s possible to run a society, even a society that’s coasting, that doesn’t see growth in the incomes of middle- and working-class people. I think it’s possible to manage that in a way that feels fair, that makes the burdens feel fairly shared. And if you do that, there’s the possibility of getting people to see that closing off to the world is only going to make things worse. That’s the big thing we have to persuade people of. Brexit isn’t making things better for middle-class incomes in Britain.

COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.

[laughter]

But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

And for most of us — not everybody, but for most of us — interaction with others is really interesting and rewarding. And a lot of what we value here, a lot of what we value about our own stuff, our own national stuff, is actually the result of dialogue with other places. Shakespeare’s most famous play is about a Dane. Japan’s most famous poet, Matsuo Basho, is a Buddhist. That means he’s connected with India. He wrote in a script that was invented in China.

A lot of what we value here, a lot of what we value about our own stuff, our own national stuff, is actually the result of dialogue with other places. Shakespeare’s most famous play is about a Dane. Japan’s most famous poet, Matsuo Basho, is a Buddhist. That means he’s connected with India. He wrote in a script that was invented in China.

So a lot of what we value most in the here turns out to be connected with the there.

So a lot of what we value most in the here turns out to be connected with the there. If we were to break off from everywhere, as from time to time societies do — Japan broke off for a while. At the end of the Ming Dynasty, China broke off for a while. This was not good for the development of those societies. Just from an internal point of view, it wasn’t good.

COWEN: Should a cosmopolitan be concerned that so many of the world’s marvelous cultural objects are so concentrated in a relatively small number of museums and a relatively small number of countries, almost exclusively Western?

APPIAH: Yes.

COWEN: So, the British Museum — should they send back what they have?

APPIAH: I think what the British Museum should do is what they are doing, which is to be part of the leadership of a movement in the world of museums to say, “The key questions about the great objects are access questions, not ownership questions. If we fuss about ownership, we’ll never make any progress. Let’s agree that the challenge is to make a world in which everybody in the world is, from time to time, close to a significant body of seriously interesting objects.”

That means that the British Museum should be sharing, as it does, but it should be doing it more. I think sending back, of course, is exactly the wrong solution because sending back means you send all the Malian stuff to Mali. But the trouble with Mali is not that it doesn’t have Malian stuff. It’s that it doesn’t have Italian Renaissance stuff. It doesn’t have Chinese pottery. It doesn’t have tapestries woven by the Aztecs. It doesn’t have lots of the world’s great treasures.

Better to think about the task as being a task of collectively curating the world’s collection for everybody and figuring out how to share more of it in places where it’ll be accessible, more closely accessible to some of the people in the world who don’t have access to anything now. That would be my ambition.

COWEN: But more Dogon artworks in Mali would be a good start, right? There could be a museum with 200 of them. Maybe they wouldn’t be taken care of as well, but isn’t that up to people in Mali, to decide what’s the risk-return tradeoff, and they simply ought to be sent back? They were probably purchased under duress, in some cases taken?

APPIAH: I don’t agree with you that it’s up to them. It’s not up to them. These things matter to all of us. Their care and concern should be a concern for everybody. It should be part of the job of the global community to think together about how to manage these things.

Now, obviously, from time to time, particular objects are in the trust of various public and private institutions in particular countries, and those countries should make sure that they perform the duties that come with having such a trust. But no, I don’t think it’s just up to them.

Just to take the case of the Dogon material, the Dogon material — much of it is religious material from a religion that hardly anybody practices anymore because Mali is way more Muslim than it was in the French colonial period as a result of interesting processes which we could discuss.

It’s a bit like the situation that there was in Afghanistan under the Taliban. They were, as possessors of the Afghan state, trustees of a whole bunch of stuff that they thought of as idols, and some of what they did was destroy stuff because they thought it was idols. Fortunately, as a result of the good sense of a lot of curators in Afghanistan, who hid stuff from the Taliban, they didn’t succeed in destroying as much as they could have.

But the thought that the Taliban is in charge of whether we should look after Buddhist material that happens to be in Afghanistan, I think, is a mistake. In other words, I really do think of these things, as it were, belonging to all of us, humanity. This is the cosmopolitan attitude to these things, and that of course states — as with all cosmopolitan obligations — states play a central role in ensuring that they’re met.

And so each state has responsibility for the stuff in its territory, but it doesn’t have special rights to determine what happens to things just because they happen to be in its territory, any more than the Italians have any special right to decide that Etruscan stuff is bad, and therefore we’re going to not care for it. That would be wrong. Of course, they haven’t decided that, but if they were to, it wouldn’t be sensible to say, “Well, because it’s in Italy, the Italians are entitled to do what they like with it.” They’re not.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: Now, in the middle of all these dialogues, we have a segment called overrated versus underrated. I toss out a few names or ideas, and you tell me if you think they’re overrated or underrated. But these will be easy. Are you ready?

APPIAH: Okay.

COWEN: Karl Popper.

APPIAH: That’s not easy.

[laughter]

APPIAH: I don’t think he’s overrated.

COWEN: But is he underrated?

APPIAH: No, I think he’s rated about right.

COWEN: Okay. Kant’s third Critique?

APPIAH: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

APPIAH: Because most people in the world haven’t any idea about it, and it’s a really important document.

COWEN: And amongst philosophers?

APPIAH: I think philosophers give way more weight to the first Critique, and maybe that’s right, but not as much more weight than they do.

COWEN: E. T. Mensah, overrated or underrated? Ghanaian highlife.

APPIAH: Ghanaian highlife. You know, I don’t know. I haven’t asked anybody about him in Ghana recently. I hope he’s not underrated. He’s one of the great Ghanaian treasures. I certainly think that if he is highly rated, that’s perfectly correct.

COWEN: Ghanaian taxi drivers in Washington still know who he is, if that’s any indication.

APPIAH: Well then, that’s terrific because I think that kind of highlife was one of Ghana’s great contributions to cosmopolitan global culture.

COWEN: Paul Simon’s Graceland album. How has it aged?

APPIAH: I don’t think pop music generally ages well, so it’s fine, but I don’t think it’s as important as it seemed at the time.

COWEN: Why doesn’t pop music age well?

APPIAH: Well, I think because it’s meant to be for the moment. It’s not meant to be constructed with the kind of care and detail that goes into making the kinds of works that endure.

COWEN: Afrofuturism, overrated or underrated?

APPIAH: Overrated.

COWEN: Why?

APPIAH: Because that kind of slogan, I think, doesn’t help do anything.

COWEN: But the notion that there’s some new way to think about African or Pan-African identity by looking forward rather than backward? That’s not a useful idea? Manifested through science fiction, cinema, it seemed to inspire a lot of people.

APPIAH: Well, it inspired a lot of the kind of people that you and I would know about, but if you want to know what’s really being consumed by the mass publics in Africa, I don’t know that Afrofuturism would count as one of the —

COWEN: But say, Black Panther — maybe not in Africa, but I’m sure it was pirated in Africa, as well. That’s had a major impact. Many millions of people have watched it, felt in some way motivated or inspired. Was the vision behind that movie a mistake in some way?

APPIAH: I think it was a very sentimental film, which sought to . . . It’s a bit like the way in which the pyramids figure in Afrocentrism. That is to say, the reality is Africa did not develop advanced technologies in the remote past and build on them, and I think a fantasy in which they did doesn’t really help us to think about Africa’s future.

COWEN: What was it like teaching Jodie Foster?

APPIAH: She’s a very smart woman.

COWEN: What struck you about her?

APPIAH: Well, she was a very smart woman. She’s very engaged with thinking about — at that point, I don’t know what she thinks about now — she wrote a wonderful senior thesis about Toni Morrison, which I admired.

COWEN: A few comparisons I’ll toss out. Gwen versus Augustus John. Which painter do you prefer?

APPIAH: I know it’s conventional now to prefer Gwen John, but I still think that the best Augustus John paintings are pretty amazing, and I’m not sure that I think that about anything of Gwen John’s.

COWEN: James Brown or Fela Kuti?

APPIAH: I think I’m a James Brown man by a smidge.

COWEN: Mark Twain or Harriet Beecher Stowe?

APPIAH: Mark Twain.

COWEN: Why?

APPIAH: Well, he’s much funnier, for one thing. He has a wider range. He’s an essayist and a humorist as well as a novelist. So, in all of those ways, he’s a more interesting writer. Harriet Beecher Stowe had a huge influence through one book. Huge and positive influence, which I am glad about, but as a literary figure, I think Twain is obviously superior.

COWEN: And here’s the question that will really get you in trouble. Does Ghana or Nigeria have the better jollof rice?

APPIAH: I think that the answer is that the best jollof rice in West Africa may not be in either Ghana or Nigeria, but I’ll stick with my own preference for Ghanaian, but that’s probably just a question of what you’re used to. I’m going to have some next weekend, so I’ll be reminded.

COWEN: In Ghana.

APPIAH: No, no, I’m going to be in England, but my niece WhatsApped me an hour ago and said, “I’m going to bring jollof rice.”

COWEN: Oh, great.

APPIAH: And I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.”

On his approach philosophy

COWEN: Some questions about philosophy. Just sort of standing on one foot briefly, how would you position yourself in the philosophic canon?

APPIAH: I think of myself as someone whose main contribution is to notice things of interest in philosophical work and draw them to the attention of a public that’s wider than the public that already knows about them, the philosophical world that already knows about them.

Also, I happened to be in a place and a time, in the early ’80s in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale, where there was a possibility of making a kind of connection between analytic philosophy — the kind of philosophy I was trained in — and questions in African and African-American studies. To the extent that there is a subfield of African-American studies that’s philosophical, I think I can claim to have more or less started it.

Of course there are ancestors like Du Bois, but in terms of thinking about how a philosophical training should be brought to bear in thinking about African-American stuff, I definitely was one of the first people to. I think I had the first appointment in philosophy in African-American studies in the world, and that was luck.

It was Yale that thought of making that appointment. I didn’t invent the job, but it gave me a challenge: How can you take this training you’ve had, which has nothing at all to do with race or gender or sexual orientation or anything else — how can you take that and bring it to bear in thinking about things that are central to African-American studies?

I’m really lucky that I was faced with that question, just as a teacher, because I had to teach things. I had to teach philosophy courses in African-American studies. I was really lucky, and it was sort of obvious that there was lots of material that could be brought to bear, so to the extent that I have a tiny place in the history of the subject, it’s probably in that intersection.

COWEN: How can we bring more diversity — racial and otherwise — to philosophy? What concretely should we do?

APPIAH: Well, the challenge is that . . . I don’t remember the numbers exactly, but it’s something like this. Men and women enter undergraduate philosophy at about the same rates, but women leave faster, so that by the end of college, there are more males than females in most philosophy majors.

There’s about a third, I think. So obviously that means that in graduate school, there’s probably about a third women to start with, but again, more of them leave, so clearly, we’re doing something wrong because it isn’t that women are not equally interested in the subject, as they arrive.

COWEN: But they may have more common sense, right? Philosophers are underpaid relative to their smarts, and at some point, you might just say, “Gee, why am I doing this?”

APPIAH: You might, but I don’t think that that’s what’s going on. I think that the . . . On the paid question, philosophers are the best paid of humanities majors, so if you’re going to stick in the humanities, and you’re just interested in income, you should probably be a philosopher. But obviously, you wouldn’t commit yourself to a life in philosophy if money was the main thing in your life, the thing that you cared about most.

I think they leave because . . . There’s some psychological evidence about this. One reason I think, and Sarah-Jane Leslie — who’s now a dean at Princeton — but she’s a philosopher and psychologist that’s thought about this. One reason is that there’s been a tendency in analytic philosophy to treat the question of how people perform early in the subject as an indication of whether they have this thing, this it that can make for good philosophy.

Truth is, as in most things, the good philosophers are people who work hard and who maybe have some psychological traits, but they’re pretty widely distributed in the population. What happens then is that in the first process of developing as a philosopher, you meet these teachers who, explicitly or implicitly, communicate the thought that if you don’t do well in a paper, it’s not their fault; it’s because you don’t have it.

This is a place where women do seem to be more sensible than men. That is, if they get indications that they’re in an activity where they’re not going to do well, they wisely move to something where they think they will. Boys and young men are more likely to resist a little bit and to insist on trying again. That seems to be the evidence. Since it’s false that there’s some it that people have that makes them successful in philosophy, we should not be communicating this.

So the most important practical thing is to say to all the people who teach undergraduate philosophers, “Don’t say that. Explain to them that if they don’t do well on their first paper, it’s probably because they haven’t worked hard enough, or they didn’t ask enough help from the teacher or the teaching assistants; that if they push on, they’re likely to get better.”

I think at that stage, that’s a really important thing, but then we have to worry about the next stage, at the graduate level. We have a climate committee in our department that thinks all the time about making sure that everything about the climate in the department is not putting off for women, racial minorities, trans people, and so on, gay people — anybody who might for one reason or another feel alienated.

We spend a lot of our time making sure that we don’t do the things that alienate them, and another whole category of people who can be alienated by college experience are people who come from backgrounds where they don’t have parents who went to college or who don’t have very much money in their background. Interacting with people who do — that can be an unsatisfying or unpleasant experience unless the people that you’re interacting with are thoughtful people.

So, we try as hard as we can to be thoughtful about these things, and I’m saying we do it in my department, but all the departments, all the serious departments would be doing this now.

COWEN: Does it matter if philosophic realism is true?

APPIAH: Well, mattering is a two-place relation. Things matter to somebody. It matters to me, but it wouldn’t have mattered to my mother, and I think my mother was a perfectly satisfactory human being for its not having mattered to her. She knew that I wrote a book about realism. I’m glad to say she didn’t ask me to explain it to her, not because she wasn’t smart, but because she wasn’t interested.

COWEN: You write a column for the New York Times called “The Ethicist,” and you give people ethical advice. To what extent do you think advice in any context, including that, is mainly a placebo? That people feel they’ve gotten advice, they feel stronger, they feel more confident. They may go ahead and do what they want to anyway. You’ve benefited them, but advice is something other than actual advice.

APPIAH: Honestly, the main thing I think I’m doing in the column is helping everybody except the person that wrote the letter to think about some ethical question, which is for them not likely to be an urgent one in the way it is for the letter writer.

For the letter writers, of course I don’t give advice that I think will do them any harm, but I’m not usually feeling that the advice I’ve given them is either (a) very different from what they would have done without my advice, or (b) really, truly satisfactory because if I were in the business of advising, as opposed to writing an advice column, which is not being in the business of advising, I would want to know more in almost every case about their situation.

If they came to me with the question, the first thing I’d say is, “Tell me more about this. Tell me more about that,” and so on. But the convention is that the letter is all I get, and while the fact checkers at the Times do call people up to make sure that everything in the letter is true, they don’t allow me to ask them questions.

I think that in real life, a lot of the function of advice is actually the one you identified. It’s just being a sounding board. It’s listening. The person’s going to do something, but it’s helpful to be heard. It’s helpful to articulate the problem for yourself. The advice function — the thing that the advisor says — may not be hugely important.

COWEN: There’s some evidence that people who know just a little about financial literacy do worse than people who know nothing at all because they then think they can go out and make investments, but until they know a lot, that may be counterproductive. Do you ever worry about that with advice?

APPIAH: If I thought that I was the only resource [laughs] for the people who are writing the letters, I wouldn’t write the column. All I’m trying to do is to identify something in the question that strikes me as worth thinking about, mostly, as I say, not for the person who wrote to me, but for the million other people who are going to read it. I’ve never had a question where I thought, “If I answer this with what I think is the best advice I have, there’s a risk that something bad will happen.” I’ve never had that happen.

COWEN: Do you think there’s a risk that people just feel inadequate, that they know somewhat what’s the right thing to do, but they ask you. You confirm their intuition, and then they’re like, “Oh my goodness, I already knew I’m not up to that, but now society is really telling me I’m not up to that,” and they just go away feeling bad?

APPIAH: Possible. As I say, I get zero information beyond the letter, and perhaps surprisingly, people don’t often communicate with me or try to communicate with me about what I’ve said, especially the people who asked the question. So, it’s possible that it makes people feel bad, but what I imagine is that there are many reasons why people write in. One is they just want to, as it were, write it down. They’ve got a problem. They think, “If I just write out this question, I’ll get clearer about what my situation is, and maybe this guy will even help me get a little bit clearer.”

But I think a lot of them are people who’ve had an argument with somebody about what they should do, and they want me to take sides. Now, they don’t explicitly say that, and they don’t tell me what the other side is, usually, though occasionally somebody says, “Well, my wife thinks this, and I think that.”

So I think sometimes the function of my answer is for it to be something that on Sunday morning gets slapped down on the breakfast table. “See, he agrees with me.” Or that gets hidden away because I don’t agree with you, and you don’t want your whoever it is you’re arguing with to know that the Times ethicist has taken their side.

But as I say, I think it’s really important that I don’t believe that anybody who was in serious difficulty should think of writing to the New York Times and waiting perhaps months for an answer is a sensible way to seek a solution. The main function of the column from my point of view, as I say, is to get out ideas for thinking about the big things that happen in everybody’s life.

Questions about confidentiality, loyalty, the balancing of interests, what difference your relationship with a person makes to what you owe to them — these sorts of things, which I think philosophy has a lot to say about, and it’s useful for people to think about, whether or not they’re currently facing a question of that kind.

COWEN: What do you think is the next undervalued moral revolution on its way, say within the next decade?

APPIAH: I should have a standard answer to that, but I don’t. I think that we’re seeing . . . There’s a long tradition in Muslim moral thought of making each of us, at least each Muslim, responsible for the moral lives of other Muslims in a certain way. It refers to a passage in the Koran about commanding right and forbidding wrong.

This society was, when I came here 30-something years ago, very much a society in which people thought that you left other people to do their own moral thing. Now there’s an interesting change going on, that people feel inclined to intervene in the moral lives even of strangers and to say what they think about it. Maybe not to coerce them, of course, into doing anything in particular, but at least to express a view.

If that takes hold, it will be a huge revolution in the moral life of our society.

This society was, when I came here 30-something years ago, very much a society in which people thought that you left other people to do their own moral thing. Now there’s an interesting change going on, that people feel inclined to intervene in the moral lives even of strangers and to say what they think about it. Maybe not to coerce them, of course, into doing anything in particular, but at least to express a view.

If that takes hold, it will be a huge revolution in the moral life of our society.

COWEN: And what in our behavior will change the most, say within 10, 15 years?

APPIAH: You mean if that happens?

COWEN: If that happened. If it continues.

APPIAH: I think there’ll be a lot more of what are called bystander interventions in social life. That will mean that, probably, there’ll be a lot less sexual and racial and homophobic harassment because bystanders are very useful in dealing with that kind of thing. That will be good. A lot of people now witness those kinds of things, and they think it’s wrong, but they don’t say anything because we have this idea that, as I said, that “everybody’s responsible for their own moral life” kind of thing.

If that were to take off, it would be a big change. It would have downsides as well as upsides — as these changes often do — because there’s a reason why, in the Muslim case, the tradition says that while you should do this, you shouldn’t, for example, be too nosy about what other people are doing because then the balance would shift too far in the other direction.

And there are people who would respond to a change like that by nosily poking about in other people’s lives, and I think there’s a place for moral privacy, as well. Like all these things, it’s likely to go too far at some point.

On the Kwame Anthony Appiah production function

COWEN: For our final segment, we cover your life. I sometimes call this the Kwame Anthony Appiah production function. Simple question — you were a child, you met Richard Wright, James Baldwin. What was that like?

APPIAH: I don’t remember.

COWEN: You don’t remember.

APPIAH: I don’t remember my childhood. I got very, very sick when I was eight and spent several months in hospital, and I have zero memories of anything before that, unfortunately.

COWEN: And when you were in the hospital, Nkrumah walked past your hospital bed. Do you remember that?

APPIAH: I do remember that.

COWEN: What was that like?

APPIAH: I was recovering at that point. That was very exciting. I knew he had put my father in prison, but he was still the president of our country, and it was very exciting to have him there. I was upset that he was with the Queen of England, and she greeted me and he didn’t.

I was upset that he didn’t say hello, since he’d been a very close friend of my parents. He was going to be the best man at their wedding when he became leader of government business in Ghana, so he sent somebody else. They’d been very close, so even though he was my father’s imprisoner, I think I remember feeling that he should have not tapped his foot and looked at the ceiling, which is basically what he did.

COWEN: What did you say back to the queen when she greeted you?

APPIAH: Well, the Queen, in hospitals, tends to ask this slightly daft question, which is, “How are you?” And the answer should always be, “Well, I’m in hospital, so.” But of course, I said I was very well.

The thing that got me in trouble was when the Duke of Edinburgh — who had visited my hometown, Kumasi, without the Queen previously and had met my mother — turned around as he was leaving and said, “Give my regards to your mother,” which is a conventional thing for members of the royal family to say of somebody they had met before. At that point, the president realized that he knew who I was.

COWEN: And later, what was it like having — was it an uncle, a great-uncle — as king?

APPIAH: I had both because my great-uncle was succeeded by my uncle. They’re very different — to me — because my great-uncle was this incredible, charismatic symbol of Ashantiness. We would sometimes go up and see him with my mother and my sisters on a Sunday after church. We would just go and sit and chat to him. But it wasn’t like chatting with a member of the family. He was a very grand figure. He was always dressed in these amazing Ashanti Kente robes. So, that was kind of exciting, and you were awed by him.

The next king of Ashanti, whom I knew as a child as Uncle Matthew before he became king, was someone . . . When I was a kid, I hung out with him. We walked around hand in hand when I was a kid, and so on. I knew him very intimately. So, while it was also the case that somehow being invested with this job made him seem a little bit magical, he was still, fundamentally, just my uncle Matthew.

COWEN: Did you know your British grandfather at all, when he was —

APPIAH: Alas, no. He died before I was born. In fact, he died before my parents were married. My mother always said about him that, because he was chancellor of the exchequer in Britain and in charge of a period of austerity after the war, that everybody always had this image of him as this austere figure, incapable of enjoyment. But in fact, she said, he had lots of fun.

Churchill picked up on this way of thinking about my grandfather when he said that “There but for the grace of God goes God,” he said about my grandfather. He was very religious, he was very pious, but he wasn’t humorless, and I think people got the impression that he was.

COWEN: What do you learn from having a sheep farm in New Jersey?

APPIAH: I learned that it is possible to be a happy creature that doesn’t know about Donald Trump and doesn’t worry about the fate of the world. My sheep are . . . We feed them properly, and they have access to water, and they can run around, and there are no big dogs to scare them, or wolves or anything like that. No predators. Their lives seem happy, and when I’m visiting them, I’m reminded of the possibility of a kind of untroubled existence.

COWEN: Do you think it helps your work to have two very distinct physical habitats to do things in?

APPIAH: I think it does.

COWEN: How does that work?

APPIAH: For example, the column — I almost always work on the column at the weekend in the living room of our house in New Jersey. I work for six or seven hours, maybe, just with a laptop and the questions and occasional cups of coffee, and that’s a very productive space for me. I get that done that way.

Here in New York, I almost never get anything done in either of my offices. I have an office in the law school, an office in the philosophy department, but in this very room, too, I also sometimes sit with my laptop, and again, I can sit for six or seven hours and write things. I’ve actually almost never done a column in this space for some reason, so that’s usually writing lectures or articles or reviews.

I have a beautiful study in New Jersey, and I’ve never managed to write a single word in it. It somehow doesn’t work for me. I have a lovely desk, and I’m surrounded by a lovely library of books, and there’s a fireplace and so on, but it just doesn’t work. The place that works is sitting in a living room with a laptop on my lap.

COWEN: I love the novel Milkman, by the way. What have you learned from chairing the Booker Prize?

APPIAH: That fiction in English is in great shape. There are just lots of wonderful novels. I read 173 novels for that.

COWEN: Did that make you a better reader or a worse reader?

APPIAH: I don’t think you should read novels in the way you have to read them for that purpose because you’re — I did read them all. That is to say, I read every page of almost all — I lie. I did not read every page of one of them, which was awful.

COWEN: But at some point, you just know you don’t like it. You’re not going to give the prize to a book which has a great second half, right? The whole book has to be good.

APPIAH: Yes, but still, the judges felt that we owed it to these people to read them right through, so we did. I wouldn’t urge . . . You’re reading very, very fast because you’ve got less than a year, and you’ve got to read all these books, and you are reading with a question in mind, which is not the question you normally have in mind when you read a novel, which is, “Is this worthy of this prize?” It’s a funny frame of mind.

So, you read 173. Then you make a long list of 13, and those you can then read again at a reasonable rate in the last part of the summer. Then once you’ve picked the six, you get to read those again, so the final list you’ve read three times, and the last two times you read them at a reasonable rate. So, you’ve read them in a sort of normal way, but there are books that I read for that, that I’m going to read again because I didn’t feel I read them properly.

COWEN: And you’re now on a committee for an architecture prize. Is that correct?

APPIAH: Yes.

COWEN: And do you visit sites or you’re . . . How does that work?

APPIAH: There are architects or designers who actually visit the sites, but they produce very extensive reports. We pick the finalists, the 20-something finalists, by looking at portfolios. Then there’s a presentation of each building over a series of days, and so on, and that’s how the choices are made.

COWEN: And how effective do you think prizes are in stimulating achievement? Or is it mainly for the readers or the viewers? They know where to go.

APPIAH: I don’t think anybody writes a book because they might get a literary prize. [laughs] That wouldn’t be a good enough reason to write a novel. You have to —

COWEN: But fame and fortune could be a reason, right? Samuel Johnson at least claimed that’s why he wrote.

APPIAH: Yes, and sometimes it reads like it. I think literary fiction is not written by people who are looking for fame and fortune.

The author of Milkman — she’s living in a small apartment, didn’t have very much money. When asked what she would do with the prize money, she said, “Pay off my debts.” Anna Burns has a vocation to write these novels. She writes them in a very particular way. She says they come to her. She waits for them, and then she writes stuff down. Sometimes she knows it’s working, and sometimes it isn’t, and so on. She has a very particular picture of what she’s up to.

I don’t think people like that are motivated by anything like this, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t anybody who’s motivated in that way. I think that recognition is part of the important structure of the literary world, and prizes big and small are an important part of that. I don’t think they’re unimportant. I think it’s good to do them.

I’m also the chair of the prize committee for the Berggruen Prize, which is a philosophy prize, which is a million dollars a year. Which tends to go to people who’ve had a long career.

COWEN: Like Charles Taylor, right?

APPIAH: Like Charles Taylor or Martha Nussbaum — people who started doing what they were doing long before there were any prizes, so it can’t have motivated them. Certainly, for the Booker, the reason I agreed to do it — and it involved flying to London once a month, and a lot of stress, and reading all those novels — is because of its function for the readers.

What the Booker does is it creates a conversation in England over the summer about 13 books, and then people get really excited about which six are going to be picked, and there’s another conversation about the six, including conversations in which people say that the judges are idiots and they’ve missed something important, which is good because then that comes into the conversation too.

And then the winner, and again, all over England, people are talking about this book, and people who wouldn’t have read it, read it. And since it’s a great book, that’s a good outcome.

COWEN: Last question. Let’s say a very smart 19-year-old comes to you, maybe at NYU, and they say, “I want to be the next generation’s version of you in some way, but of course, different.” What advice do you give them, ethical or otherwise?

APPIAH: I think what I say is, life is not the kind of thing you can plan. You can’t have a sort of life plan — which is a term some ethicists use — in your back pocket.

I was a medical student when I went to university. I was going to be a doctor till I was 20. Then I realized that I really loved philosophy, but I didn’t become a philosophy undergraduate because I thought I was going to be a philosophy graduate student. I became a philosophy undergraduate because I wanted to do more philosophy, and then I was going to go home and figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

I went home, spent a year in Ghana, and the job I got was teaching philosophy at the University of Ghana. That made me realize that I liked the teaching, which I hadn’t done before, obviously, as an undergraduate.

So I would say, be prepared to discover what’s both in you and out there in the world. Don’t have some picture of how you want it to happen because that’s very unlikely to work. Be attentive to the world around you. Be attentive to what you discover about yourself as you go along. Match the two together.

I didn’t set out to make any kind of impact. I just was interested in the subject and wanted to do more. Wanted to write more, wanted to think more, wanted to teach more. I think that too much reflection on the effects of your work, as opposed to just on the work itself, is probably not a good idea. You should just do it and hope that it will have uptake.

And the final thing I’ll say is that there are many, many kinds of uptake. There are people whose uptake is almost entirely within professional philosophy, who are doing wonderful, important work, which will never be explained probably to people outside because there are things you need to know — modal logic, or tensile calculus, or something if you’re a philosopher of physics, that aren’t ever going to be explained to everybody.

That work is very important, too. That sort of work — the work that isn’t easily explained to the rest of the world — is in the background of the work that does get explained more widely. I feel very much, as it were, standing on the shoulders of . . . perhaps not giants, but anyway, pretty large people, who are not visible outside the subject, but without whose work . . .

In other words, the work is the product of the community of scholars, and you’re just one tiny proboscis on that vast amoeba of philosophy. And there’s stuff right in the middle, the nucleus, and in there, people are doing things that nobody’s ever going to figure out outside the amoeba itself.

So don’t look for any particular kind of impact. Do the best work you can, and if it’s good work, it will have some kind of impact. Maybe not in the world outside philosophy, but in philosophy. Also, hold on to the thing that should have brought you in in the first place, which is your own desire to understand things.

Always, in the end, what I’m doing, even when I’m answering those questions, is figuring out what I think, which is the only way I know how to make a contribution, just to figure out the best answer you can come up with, in the available time, to the question that presents itself to you.

The questions in philosophy that present themselves to me seem very urgent to me, even if some of them have answers that are for the ages. And I’m mostly working on them because I want to know the answer myself.

COWEN: Kwame, thank you very much.

APPIAH: Thank you. It was great to talk to you.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

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The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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